How to support academic staff starting the journey of decolonising the curriculum

Submitted by Miranda Prynne on Tue, 14/12/2021 - 09:05
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How do you support the endeavours of academic staff and build student voice into an institution-wide effort to decolonise the curriculum? Mhairi Taylor and Nighet Riaz share lessons from the University of Glasgow’s action plan
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A wide-ranging action plan to help tackle racism and racial harassment on campus was launched in 2021 by the University of Glasgow as part of its effort to address racial inequality. The plan came from recommendations in the Understanding Racism, Transforming University Culture report, which considered the experiences of students and staff at the university in terms of racial harassment and the cultural context contributing to this.

A key principle in the action plan was linked to decolonising the curriculum. It states: Our curriculum and learning community will thrive when it is reflective of global perspectives and race equality is embedded.

This was based on evidence from the report’s student survey and in-depth interviews with ethnic minority colleagues. Underpinning the principle is a range of activities, including:

  • Create a student-staff partnership scheme that focuses on co-creating the decolonised curriculum.
  • Conduct continuing professional development workshops for staff as part of improving staff awareness of and engagement with decolonising the curriculum. 
  • Senior management group to fund an internship project that creates a report on changing or alternative teaching pedagogies for decolonising.
  • School Learning and Teaching Committees tasked with decolonising their curriculum by ensuring greater representation and historical awareness.
  • Hold an annual Decolonising the Curricula event.

As equality, diversity and inclusion practitioners, we are not experts on decolonising. However, in this article we will outline how institutions can support academic staff, who are discipline experts, to get started in this process, based on our experiences so far.

Listen to academics’ concerns and wishes regarding decolonising

First, try to get a full understanding of where different staff need support and guidance in order to deliver on the action plan. Simply publishing a report and action plan and then leaving staff to get on with it will not work.

After launching Understanding Racism, Transforming University Cultures, we invested considerable time in sharing and discussing the report with colleagues across the institution. Many were shocked and disappointed at the findings, but also determined to address the issues raised.

Regarding decolonising, colleagues in different disciplines were at different stages of the process. Some had been considering this for some time, because it was part of the fabric of their discipline; others found the ideas more complex and were looking for pragmatic examples of how to address this within their disciplinary context. Many staff were reassured that the action plan provided for a period of professional development, prior to school-led discussion on how this could be achieved in their discipline.

Do then continue to get staff feedback as work on decolonisation progresses and keep an open mind about staff needs and what is and is not effective.

We continue to assess whether the term “decolonising” itself is helpful or reflective of our aim. Many staff and students do not recognise the term because it has a UK/European context, and it pertains to the negative, in other words, removing rather than embellishing. We will keep this under review.

How to support staff with decolonisation of curricula

It is helpful to set a broad base of principles for academic colleagues to work upon as they begin their efforts towards decolonisation. This supports staff to address the topic within the framework of their specific disciplines – all of which have different internal and external norms and expectations.

Try to spark discussion among staff within each academic discipline about their curriculum, who it represents and who it is for. We believe staff should feel supported in this, so we are planning to invite a series of external speakers to demonstrate some of the activities they have used to evaluate the curriculum and its design, and how to reflect on decolonising as a topic.

Decolonising as a concept has recently received heightened attention, and with this inevitably comes negativity and misunderstanding. It is an institution’s job to dispel myths that this is about reducing the canon; rather it is about contextualising the canon and, in truth, curriculum enhancement.

Where has it worked, and what are they doing?

Look for best-practice examples of where staff have already made progress in decolonising their programmes and learn from them. In many disciplines where they have taken forward a decolonising process, the academic staff point to small initial engagements. For instance, simple steps such as including additional short reading for discussion in seminars, listening to the students’ reflections on these and developing this for modification in the next teaching session. Decolonisation can be a gradual process and given the challenging year everyone has faced, a wholesale rewrite of the curriculum is unreasonable.

Why it’s important to collaborate with students

Collaboration with students is imperative. Ensuring the student voice is part of the decolonising process will help to shape institution-wide understanding and add value across the full range of disciplines. Gather student feedback on actions taken towards decolonising and ask them what should change.

By ensuring curricula are reflective of the broad student community, institutions will help break down the kind of racialised barriers and structures highlighted in our report. Co-creation with students will support a more inclusive community and culture.

Get things started with a decolonising event

Hosting an event is a great way to get everyone engaged in decolonising. This is an opportunity to inform staff and students and to inspire them to kick-start the process.

Our virtual Decolonising the Curriculum symposium was organised by a planning group of academics with decolonising experience and interested students. It featured plenary speaker Nazira Karodia, dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Wolverhampton, who has written and spoken extensively about decolonising STEM. All four of the university’s academic colleges were represented in a series of lightning talks on decolonising curricula: Arts; Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences; Science and Engineering; and Social Sciences, followed by round-table and panel discussions.

Despite being a remote event, there was a buzz of ideas, support, questions and enthusiasm. During the conference, we asked staff to contribute their ideas of what decolonising means. Here are some examples:

  • More flexibility, an inclusive approach. Being free to change our learning and teaching methods, change what’s valued in assessment and the way we define success. Not doing things simply because “that’s how we’ve always done it”.
  • Not just diversifying but thinking through how the forms of knowledge that we privilege reproduce and uphold colonial structures, and attempting to bring in, include and develop alternative ways of knowing and thinking.
  • To understand that the construction of knowledge itself was and is subject to colonisation.

A cross-university group of 32 staff representing different schools and disciplines are now meeting regularly as part of community of practice Decolonising the Curriculum group to keep this important work moving forward.

We recognise that we are at an early stage in this process; however professional services staff have a responsibility to support academic colleagues and students to ensure that together we make positive moves to address racial inequalities across the curriculum.

Mhairi Taylor is head of equality, diversity and inclusion at the University of Glasgow.

Nighet Riaz is equality, diversity and inclusion policy adviser at the University of Glasgow.

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How do you support the endeavours of academic staff and build student voice into an institution-wide effort to decolonise the curriculum? Mhairi Taylor and Nighet Riaz share lessons from the University of Glasgow’s action plan